The Fall of Aleppo Doesn’t Mean Assad Wins

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Civilians evacuating the eastern districts of Aleppo carry their belongings as they arrive in a government held area of Aleppo, Syria, on December 7. Tim Eaton writes that, while the loss of territory in Aleppo city will be crippling to the opposition, the idea that a victory in Aleppo will soon precipitate the rebels defeat is premature, and the hope that it may provide the impetus for a diplomatic solution unlikely. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

The rebel-held enclave in East Aleppo has contracted by 75 percent in the last 10 days. Syrian government forces and their allies continue to press home their advantage through a brutal combination of aerial bombardment and siege warfare.

With defeat looming, rebel groups are negotiating terms over the transfer of civilians and fighters from the city.

These developments have led some to claim that Syria’s civil war is effectively over, and that now it is time to stop the fighting. Yet, while the loss of territory in Aleppo city will be crippling to the opposition, the idea that a victory in Aleppo will soon precipitate the rebels defeat is premature, and the hope that it may provide the impetus for a diplomatic solution unlikely.

The loss of Aleppo is indicative of the weakness of the opposition rather than the strength of the regime, which is reliant on Russian airpower and Hezbollah, Iranian and aligned militia to conduct its operations.

Related: Assad's army pushes into Aleppo's old city

A better way of looking at events on the ground is that the regime has ensured that it will not lose but that it still lacks the capability and capacity to win in any meaningful sense. Control of the whole of the country remains a distant and unrealistic prospect.

In this sense, the loss of Aleppo is not really the turning point that it is being made out to be. While it will undoubtedly be a significant blow to the rebels and their morale, it has been clear since the Russian intervention in September 2015 that the opposition could not militarily defeat the regime.

Combined with the reluctance of US to increase support for the rebels in the wake of the breakdown of US-Russian discussions over a cessation of hostilities, the regime’s progress in Aleppo has an element of inevitability to it.

But there is a major difference between the capacity required to keep fighting and the capacity required to win. Here, the approach of regional powers, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia will be critical as the US becomes increasingly peripheral.

Should President-elect Trump terminate support for the opposition, Qatar has stated that it will continue. “We are not going to stop it. It doesn't mean that if Aleppo falls we will give up on the demands of the Syrian people," Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani told Reuters last month when the prospect of a US policy shift was presented to him.

Saudi Arabia is also likely to continue to support the opposition. Yet, improving relations between Turkey and Russia, in concert with a Turkish priority shift towards countering Kurdish gains, leaves Turkey’s approach to the opposition uncertain.   

For the regime, regaining territory also brings with it associated challenges, as the government will once again be responsible for governing them. The extent which it is able to do so is an open question.

In many regime-held areas, the regime has effectively delegated this authority to irregular forces such as the National Defence Forces and a range of militia as a result of its own limited capacity. It is perhaps in anticipation of these challenges that the regime, with Russian support, has resorted to a military strategy of depopulation of opposition areas through indiscriminate attacks.

It is also important to note that, beyond Aleppo city, the rebels will continue to fight in Syria’s north west, likely shifting towards the use of insurgency tactics in areas where they can no longer hold significant territory.

This will complicate the regime’s attempts to govern areas it has regained and require manpower that it can scarcely afford to spare if it is to launch offensives elsewhere. Even Assad exercised some caution in his comments to state media. "It's true that Aleppo will be a win for us. But let's be realistic, it won't mean the end of the war in Syria," he told Al-Watan.

The next major regime offensive is likely to come in Idlib. But it is questionable whether the regime has the capacity to launch it in the near future. Like Aleppo, it will be fiercely contested by rebel groups.

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, is strong in the province, as is Ahrar al-Sham. Beyond this, other rebel groups control areas of the south, on the Jordanian and Israeli border, while Kurdish-led groups control significant areas of the north, and so-called Islamic State remains in Raqqa.

The diplomatic scene also gives little sign of an endgame unfolding, given the regional and local dynamics. Even if Russia wants a deal to be done after Aleppo – as some suggest – the hope that the regime will choose to make a deal with the opposition looks forlorn given its refusal to make concessions in peace talks to date, when it was in a weaker position.

The regime is likely to seek to continue to pragmatically and systematically pick off elements of the opposition as its capacity allows. The only likely deal that the regime would countenance is one that would negotiate the opposition’s surrender. While defeat in Aleppo may bring that prospect closer, it doesn’t appear imminent.

Tim Eaton is a research fellow for the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House.

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